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(Service) Design in strange times

How design can help organizations overcome the greatest crisis of our times and emerge stronger on the other side.

Luis Alt


Since the COVID pandemic began, I have taken upon myself the challenge to reflect if our offerings at Livework São Paulo still make sense and how. Our objective was to think of ways to make our work more helpful and impactful at a very challenging time for the world. Design has always been a powerful approach with an incredible set of tools to help us find answers in uncertain and complex scenarios, like the current one. So here are my take on design and this crisis we are facing.

The current scenario has changed the motivation to innovate

For many years I have used in my lectures an image from this article on artificial intelligence. The reflection of Pawel Sysiak, author, is that we are transforming the world at an accelerating pace. More than that. For the first time in the history of mankind, the speed is such that complete changes in our way of life are taking place within a lifetime. And if it continues that way, still according to the author, we will soon go to sleep in a world and wake up in a completely different one.

I put his thought-provoking idea at work to justify my audiences the urgency and importance for companies to innovate constantly. “If any of the FAMGA (Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Apple) — considered the most innovative and successful organizations of our times — stop rethinking and continue doing things as they currently do, within 5 years, maximum, they will stop to be relevant to its customers”, I tend to say. The logic is based on competition, not context.

But is happening to the world with the pandemic is an unexpected and deep change in our structures, in the context. Out of nowhere, for most organizations, innovation has become an obligation. They need to adapt to the “new normal” and there is no time to lose. In other words: it is no longer just a market competition where companies fight with each other for space. Now some organizations will need to reinvent themselves just to make sure their offerings are still relevant.

“Waiting for it to pass” is not an option

As time passes, I still see some people waiting for ‘this all to end’ in the hope that things will go back to how they were before. Of course, we would all like a miracle cure — be it a treatment or a vaccine — to happen soon and all this to be a (not so brief) nightmare. But the likelihood of this happening is very small. More than that: hoping that a solution will appear out of nowhere is not smart — not for individuals, much less for organizations. Any good leader knows that in times like this one he or she has to prepare for the worst so that only good news will probably come ahead. So instead of waiting for things to magically get fixed, it is better to start doing something within reach.

Even before understanding what can happen, we need to consider the two extreme scenarios. On the one hand, the good one, that everything will be as it was before (which I said I consider very unlikely). On the other, the worst (?) one, that these conditions of confinement continue for a long period of time, perhaps years (which I consider more likely than the first, according to recent studies).

Between the two extremes, we have several possible scenarios, which we are now calling “the new normal”. I will not make any predictions of what will happen, as it would be a waste of time. However, it is already safe to infer that, without a cure or a treatment, we will probably live with intermittent periods of social isolation, which will lead to profound changes in our lifestyle (and consumption).

Considering that the least likely scenario is that everything will be as it was before, businesses will need to undergo from minor adaptations to complete transformations. Delivery services had to adapt their operation to keep up with demand growth while services related to tourism urgently need to reinvent themselves. And although there are many studies that show how sectors are being impacted by this crisis, they all do so considering the world that existed until the beginning of this year. It will hardly be like that again…

Design (almost) hasn’t changed

Design is an approach, not an end. It is a human-centred and collaborative way with a strong experimental appetite (testing, learning, improving) to find answers for different challenges.

With the pandemic, we had to adapt our way of working a little, it is true. Even before the government announced the quarantine here in São Paulo, we felt that it would be safer to stay at home and, overnight, announced it to our team. Of course, as everyone, we are facing many challenges the social isolation presents, but the operation continued:

  • We are not going to the field to observe the real-life and work of our customers. But as customers, we are (ideally) not going places. The services we used to access in-person have been replaced with digital alternatives. Interviews, which used to be done at people’s homes, are now conducted by videoconference. And this has not been an impediment to understanding people’s reality, what they expect and how they interact with services. On the contrary, it boosted the number of people we were able to talk to and we became more creative to dive into their world. We are still able to map needs and desires and to transform barriers into business opportunities.
  • Our work dynamics have always been very participatory. We involve our clients and their customers in the process of building solutions through workshops. Those sessions used to be in person but are now done remotely. Looking at a single screen for hours and with several other screens, just a click away is a difficult task for all of us. For moderators, doing a good reading of the situation with participants in small squares of the screen is also a challenge. However, we’ve been learning so many ways to keep people engaged and be more productive that, in some cases, digital workshops seem better. Online platforms have expanded the possibilities of collaboration and some work sessions became faster and more focused thanks to the resources we have available nowadays.
  • Finally, simulating a given context through prototypes so that people tell us what they think about what we intend to do has also become a challenge. However, in addition to services being increasingly remote and digital today (most interactions with organizations are), it is very possible and faster to simulate realities virtually. In this part, I believe we are still at the beginning of a discovery and transformation journey in the design field — one which I’m really curious about what’s going to happen.

Design tools, after some adjustments, continue to work. Most importantly, as I will try to prove below, design has become even more relevant for organizations that want to see what’s on the other side of this crisis.

Design has become even more important

As design is a way of finding answers to challenges, it can be applied to most of them. However, in our practice, some stand out from others. With all these changes taking place in our context, the way design can generate value has not changed. Reflecting on our past projects and those that are happening right now, more than 2 months after this craziness started, I have listed some of the ways that companies can benefit from using discipline, adapted to the new context:

Who are your customers and what do they demand?

Every organization exists to serve someone by meeting a need better than other solutions available. To offer something valuable your organization must know very well the customer with the need. It’s like buying a gift. The chance of getting it right if you really know the person is much greater. Your organization and all of your employees need visibility into who benefits from your solutions. What types of clients do you have, what are their needs and how they live their lives? The context has changed a lot and how many organizations can really say that still know their customers?

How does your customer interact with your service?

Ok, you have clients because your organization meets a certain need that they have. But how much do your clients recognize and value your proposition, can they access your service when they need it, and how is their experience while interacting with your touchpoints? Having a good sense of how your service works from the outside in and what are the barriers and perceptions your customers have during their journeys is the first step to find opportunities to innovate or, simply, to become more competitive through improvements in your business. People are adapting the way they meet their needs right now. Knowing whether your service is still relevant and interesting at every moment of your customers’ journey has never been so important.

What can you do to improve your customers’ experience?

Knowing the customers and how they access and use your services makes it much easier to think about what to do next. Every service needs to undergo some transformations at this moment. Some for health motives (such as protection measures that have been adopted in retail), others because customers have changed the way they intend to interact with services. Organizations that by the time COVID struck were not yet fully digital are now desperate. But being digital have been the basics for a while, it just got more evident now. Your organization needs to understand how to orchestrate channels and touchpoints so that they are operationally efficient and easy to use (or even enjoyable) for your customers. Digital is only a part of that — a mean, not an end.

What else should your organization offer?

People will continue to have many needs in this experience we call life. Some fundamental, some frugal, but we spend our time in this planet trying to achieve goals and do things. Design can help your organization — through empathy, collaboration and experimentation — to identify opportunities, develop strategies and implement solutions that help people in their journeys. If your previous business model has been heavily impacted, you can think of ways to meet the same needs in different ways or look at your organization’s current capabilities in search for other needs that could be met in the new context.

Not only design saves but our prospects are better

No one knows what is really going to happen and there is no guaranteed solution. If any designer tells you that, he is lying or inexperienced. Strategies can work or fail miserably. And it could be due to a failure in implementation, a change in the competitive landscape, an unexpected impact like a global pandemic, or simply because the concept was not so good.

In fact, one of the many values of design is in testing strategies thought out by organizations. Bring life to life through prototypes, show potential customers or stakeholders and quickly learn whether it is worth pursuing the development of a solution or not. An initial expense that presents enormous future savings (in the case of useless concepts that are discarded before being developed and implemented).

The point here is that there is no silver bullet and in the current scenario it became even more difficult to know what to do. Design is not foolproof, but I like to see things through the lens of probability. The chances of finding solutions with high success potential when incorporating design into your organization’s toolbox have never been greater than those of any other approach.

To business leaders that made this far in this article, thank you, and I invite you to give design a go in your organization if you haven’t so. By now, there is plenty of evidence collected by organizations like Design Management Institute (DMI), Design Council, Danish Design Center and even business consultancies like McKinsey that support what I’m saying.

To designers all over: we have a lot of work ahead of us and a planet to rebuild. Let’s use this opportunity wisely!



Luis Alt

I observe (and write about) how people use services and how organizations provide them — Founder of Livework in Brazil.